As stated in NJ.com, in December of 2012, a former Jersey City municipal inspector, Bennie Anderson, took a $300 payoff to change the tax description on a building zoned for two units to one zoned for three units. Anderson pleaded guilty and was sentenced in federal court to two years of probation, five months of home confinement, and a $3,000 fine. Most recently, the New Jersey Supreme Court decided it was proper that Anderson forfeit his entire pension. In a 5-1 decision, with Chief Justice Stuart Rabner not participating, Justice Jaynee LaVecchia wrote that the Legislature had established a public pension based on the pre-condition of honorable service and rejected Anderson’s contention that forfeiting the benefit in its entirety represented an excessive fine.
Bennie Anderson was a city employee for almost forty years and his pension entitled him to $67,173 annually. Those that advocated for a total forfeiture argued that the receipt of pension benefits is always conditioned on honorable service and thus, Anderson did not earn the right to receive such a benefit by virtue of his criminal conviction. Counsel for the Pension Board stated, “It is neither unconscionable nor unreasonable to require honesty and integrity during an employee’s tenure in public service”.
However, not everyone considered the Court’s ultimate decision to forfeit Anderson’s entire pension a fair and equitable outcome. Anderson’s attorney stated, referring to the value of Anderson’s pension, that a total forfeiture was akin to a “million-dollar fine.” He went on to state, “For $300, it’s very sad. To me, that’s where it starts and ends. How is that not a punitive fine?” Anderson’s attorney said the pension would have paid out more than $1 million in benefits over Anderson’s expected lifespan.
The seminal case in pension forfeiture matters is Uricoli v. Board of Trustees, PFRS, 91 N.J. 62 (1982). In Uricoli, former police chief Uricoli petitioned for certification after the appellate court affirmed the Pension Board’s final administrative determination to forfeit his pension in totality after Uricoli was found to have committed the crime of “ticket fixing.” The Court granted certification and ultimately reversed and remanded the appellate court’s decision. The Court determined that a total forfeiture of Uricoli’s pension was not warranted based upon the facts presented, and alternatively recommended a partial forfeiture of Uricoli’s pension.
In making its recommendation for a partial forfeiture, the Uricoli Court developed a test for determining the extent to which a public employee who engaged in dishonorable service should forfeit his or her pension benefits. The Court set forth an eleven-point balancing test, which was later codified by the Legislature in N.J.S.A. 43:1-3. The factors that must be assessed, per Uricoli, are as follows:
- The member’s length in service;
- The basis for retirement;
- The extent to which the employee’s pension has vested;
- The duties of the particular employment;
- The employee’s public employment history and record;
- The employee’s other public employment and service;
- The nature of the misconduct or crime, including the gravity or substantiality of the offense, whether it was a single or multiple offense and whether it was continuing or isolated;
- The relationship between the misconduct and the employee’s public duties;
- The quality of moral turpitude or the degree of guilt and culpability, including the employee’s motives and reasons, personal gain and the like;
- The availability and adequacy of other penal sanctions; and
- Other personal circumstances relating to the employee bearing upon the justness of forfeiture.
Despite the prima facie similarities between his case and Uricoli, the Supreme Court evidentially determined that the eleven Uricoli factors weighed in favor of a total forfeiture with respect to Anderson’s appeal. It should also be noted that the Court is generally compelled to afford a certain amount of deference to agency decisions, which includes those made by the Division of Pensions and Benefits.